Apparently the choice of making tutoring the subject of our first EDUKWEST Live event last week was a very good one. Having been somewhat forgotten over the past couple of years it now makes an impressive comeback in the edtech news cycle.
To give you just one prominent example that was covered by even general tech blogs: Wyzant which raised $21.5 million late last year now acquired the remains of Tutorspree. But I’ll get into that story later this week.
Today I want to focus on Cambly, a new platform that connects English and Spanish learners through video chat. Sure, this sounds very familiar as startups like Colingo and Verbling are essentially fishing in the same pond.
Interestingly I had a chat about live video lessons among other trends with busuu.com’s co-founder Bernhard Niesner last week in London. As I was invited to give a short intro to the Edtech Innovator Award I had put live video lessons on my list of trends to watch in 2014.
As many of you know, I covered busuu.com from very early on and naturally Bernhard and I have had many talks over the past six years. I always felt there should be a live tutoring component in busuu’s offering whereas Bernhard does not feel that this is necessary or even demanded by language learners. And given busuu’s user numbers which are north of 35 million he and the team must be doing something right.
It is also worth noting that a huge part of the success that busuu finds is directly tied to their mobile applications. Which brings me back to the topic of this post, Cambly.
Cambly, other than Colingo and Verbling, is a mobile first learning platform. Learners connect with their tutors via mobile phones or tablets although users need to use iOS devices for now as Android or Windows Mobile applications are not available yet.
Cambly is also based on the 24/7 teacher cloud concept, giving students access to tutors around the clock, every day of the week. The learner can pick different weekly packages starting at $5 for 15 minutes up to $32 for 120 per week.
So what about the teachers / tutors? Here history repeats itself once more as according to TechCrunch there is no formal assessment of tutoring skills. It’s 2008 all over again, everybody can teach or, as Ryan Lawler puts it
And since no formal training is required, it’s turning the ability to speak a language natively into a marketable skill, by providing the connective layer between students and teachers.
This is the point where I see the major flaw. While the idea of having access to a tutor whenever and wherever I want is valid, the notion that people are willing to pay for some language exchange with a non-professional teacher is most likely false.
Quoting Mark Suster here, this is a FNAC, a feature not a company. busuu.com and babbel.com have been offering video chats with native speakers in their communities for ages now. Sure, they are very popular but in busuu’s case they are also part of the free offering.
And I won’t even get into all other related issues of language exchange, like not having a lesson plan or course structure. Hence though the idea seems to be good, even good enough to get into Y Combinator, I don’t think it will fly.
As a side note, Colingo which raised $2.4m for their English learning platform late last year seems to pivot already. If you visit the site you get a list of English teachers to keep in touch with and you can leave your email for updates.
I reached out to Colingo’s founder Benjamin Lowenstein and he wrote me that
We are […] refocusing product efforts around a bigger opportunity directly in line with our core vision. We’re not speaking publicly about the new directions at this point […].
Bottom line: the language learning space remains a tough nut to crack.